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Lamenting the decline of good conversation

IF I HAD to guess at the three most spoken words in the English language - or what passes for English in 21st-century America - my nominees would be: ''And I'm like.''

Certainly one can't walk across the Common or down Newbury Street at any weekend hour remotely inhospitable to vampires without being bombarded with that multi-purpose locution, usually followed by a similarly phrased summary of a second person's sentiment: ''And he's like.''

Things can get idiomatically involute when a story requires that the speaker relate what an- other party told her (or him) about the sentiments of a third. Then, you get something along these lines: And she's like, he's like, they're like, no way. It's enough to make you fear you've become entangled in a Mobius-strip simile.

Why do I bring this up? Because it's a pet-peeve path into today's topic: The decline of conversation.

That conversation is suffering is the assertion of essayist Stephen Miller, author of ''Conversation: A History of A Declining Art,'' a highly readable - and, one hopes, discussable - new book tracing the arc of intelligent talk from ancient Athens forward.

Now, I should note that, at least historically, Boston comes off rather well in his book.

Alexis de Tocqueville certainly esteemed the verbal abilities of Bostonians. Indeed, writes Miller, he believed that in the United States, good conversation could be found only here.

''Their manners are distinguished, their conversation turns on intellectual matters,'' the French observer of all things American wrote. ''One feels one has left behind the commercial habits and financial spirit that make New York society so common.'' (Take that, Gotham!)

Boston, another critic wrote some years later, ''abounded in good conversation. Experienced outsiders ..... were struck by the quality of this conversation.''

Charles Dickens, who generally had a low opinion of the state of conversation in America, also gave Boston good reviews. One of the few real differences between a social evening in London and one in Boston, Dickens said, was that the conversation in Boston ''may possibly be a little louder and more cheerful.''

But enough about the Hub of the Universe. Let's consider conversation in general.

Certainly history abounds with great talkers and appreciators of great talk.

Montaigne, who viewed it as lively but good-natured intellectual combat, thought conversation ''the most fruitful and natural exercise of our mind.''

Miller celebrates Samuel Johnson as one of history's great conversationalists, though he notes that Johnson, too, considered discussion a verbal joust. Reading Boswell's biography of the great lexicographer, one is left to wonder how enjoyable it really would have been to chat with someone always ready to insult your countryman and, with an admonitory, ''why sir,'' or ''not at all, sir,'' launch into a pointed repudiation of one's politely proffered premise.

Of course, for Boswell, that was all material for his biography. And for a man so desperate for conversation that he once found himself in tears after a fruitless search for confabulatory companions - and who, after becoming engaged, hoped to cram in as much conversation with Johnson as he could before leaving for Scotland and the altar - a certain gruff pedantry would have been a small price to pay to be in the great man's company.

But certainly it's hard to dispute Miller's notion that civil, intelligent conversation is in not-so-orderly retreat.

Academic conversation, notes one wag, often seems less a genuine discussion of ideas than an exchange of pieties. Talk radio, which styles itself a democratic medium, rewards invective, insults, and idiotic generalizations - and that's merely to count the contribution from some of the hosts. (I recently heard Faux-litzer Prize-winner Jay Severin tell a caller who offered a civil objection to one of the host's bombastic assertions to ''Kiss my ..... '')

Certainly Cicero's ideal - conversation that is gentle, witty, and ''without a trace of intransigence'' - seems something neither much desired nor often achieved in the public sphere.

So what's happened? Miller argues that trends at work on both the societal and individual levels have eroded conversation. Modern (and post-modern) theories, with their emphasis on individual truth and nonintellectual experiences, have undermined the worth of an exchange of ideas and outlook.

A popular culture that legitimates boorish narcissists has devalued collegial communication.

The enticements of the virtual world and a cornucopia of personal-entertainment diversions have pushed discourse to the side.

Aided by the Internet, more and more people are joining what Miller calls ''anger communities,'' like-minded individuals who empower each other's pique and reinforce shared prejudices.

Meanwhile, in a polarized time, an inability to entertain opposing views civilly has made certain topics - politics, for example - treacherous terrain, and thus ground best avoided.

All this strikes me as true, but I would also underline several other ideas.

One would be erosion of a common conversational denominator.

Movies long ago replaced books as favorite topics, but these days it's less and less common for people to have seen the same film.

A second is a general notion that it's fine to be ignorant of the news. Certainly few would say of contemporary Americans what a French visitor to London observed in the 1730s: ''All Englishmen are great newsmongers.'' These days, there's no shame in advertising that one is uninformed about public affairs. Sit next to someone at a social event who announces, ''Oh, I never read the paper,'' or, ''I don't follow current events,'' or even, ''I get all my news from the Daily Show,'' and you're in for a tedious time indeed.

Further, the notion of cultivating conversational abilities, or of making oneself more interesting by reading or learning, is in eclipse in a culture whose therapeutic norms call for celebrating everyone as he or she is. Put another way, the self-esteem movement has rendered the intellectual self-improvement impulse antique.

Finally, if you hold that a person need command more than, say, four adjectives to be an engaging conversationalist, then the poverty of expression that marks our trite TV culture is a pox on memorable talk.

Or to express that idea in everyday terms, hearing today's exchanges, a person who values rich and varied conversation is, like, arrggh.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is

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